Afghan refugees leave Kyrgyzstan for new life in Canada

Under a landmark group resettlement plan, the first of 525 Afghan refugees have arrived in Canada from Kyrgyzstan. This sets an example for the possible resettlement of other, often well-educated, Afghan refugees who cannot go home from exile in Central Asia.

These young Afghan refugees in Tajikistan are looking keenly at the current resettlement of their compatriots from Kyrgyzstan to Canada.   © ©UNHCR/A.Hollmann

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan, July 12 (UNHCR) - A steady flow of Afghan refugees has started leaving Kyrgyzstan for a new life in Canada under a landmark group resettlement plan that is expected to largely end a humanitarian problem that had defied solution for years.

Three or four Afghan families are expected to depart for Canada on Tuesday, following the first six individuals who arrived there last Tuesday. The departures will continue until a total of 525 refugees accepted for resettlement by the Canadian government leave Kyrgyzstan before the end of the year.

A number of Afghans had sought refuge in Kyrgyzstan, one of the states to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Union, as war raged in their homeland over the past quarter century.

Some had been able to return over the years but many were unlikely to ever feel safe to go home - the first solution always sought by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In addition, none had been locally integrated so far, the second choice of UNHCR for resolving the predicament of a refugee.

Some had been students in Kyrgyzstan when war raged against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, others were associated with the leftist Najibullah government that was overthrown in 1992 and a final wave fled when the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996.

That left only the solution of resettlement in a third country, a sometimes lengthy procedure which is normally conducted family by family. But Canadian authorities responded quickly when the UN refugee agency suggested an innovative look at the whole group of 650 Afghan refugees who were still in Kyrgyzstan. Canadian officials from the embassy in Moscow flew to Kyrgyzstan and carried out individual appraisals, accepting almost all the refugees.

"This is tangible evidence of Canada's commitment to helping UNHCR use resettlement in a strategic manner to identify solutions for refugees," said UNHCR's Representative in Canada, Jahanshah Assadi.

James Lynch, head of UNHCR in Bishkek, said that after the group resettlement to Canada is completed later this year, the Kyrgyz government will re-examine the cases of those few remaining. At that point some refugees might opt for voluntary repatriation back to Afghanistan and the residual caseload might be allowed to apply for Kyrgyz citizenship.

The success shone a spotlight on the similar situations elsewhere in the Central Asia region, where there are also Afghan refugees - often well-educated - who are unlikely to repatriate. Canadian diplomats are already planning to examine Afghan refugee cases in neighbouring Tajikistan later this year.